It’s an appeal as old as America and its presidency: This is an extraordinary country populated by hard-working, big-dreaming, freedom-loving people graced by God when they’re not pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.
And I’m the guy to lead it.
Declaring in his State of the Union address that the United States is “a light to the world,” President Obama joined the pantheon of presidents who, in turbulent times, wrapped their political agenda in the comfortable cloak of “American exceptionalism.”
The term, first used with respect to the United States by Alexis de Tocqueville, refers to the notion that America differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its national credo, ethnic diversity, and revolution-sprung history. It is often expressed as superiority: The United States is the biggest, most powerful, smartest, richest, most-deserving country on earth.
American exceptionalism is the recurring character in the nation’s narrative. We, the people. Manifest Destiny. Conceived in liberty. Fear itself. Ask not. Morning in America. United we stand. Yes, we can. In times of great change and tumult, presidents seek to inspire beleaguered Americans by reminding them of their national identity.
This is how Obama expressed the sentiment at the opening of his address, while reflecting on the shooting spree in Tuscon, Ariz.: “We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.”
The trouble is, for too many Americans the dream is slipping away. The unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent. The underemployment rate—which includes people who have given up on finding a job—is several percentage points higher. Even before the recession, real middle-class incomes fell from from $58,500 in 2000 to $56,500 in 2007.
As Obama noted, new technologies and a new economy have put livelihoods at risk, and America’s competitors—particularly China and India—have adjusted more quickly than the United States.
“And so yes, the world has changed,” Obama said, putting his finger on the source of many Americans’ anxiety. “The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us.”
“Remember,” he said, "for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on earth.”
In other words, you’re right to worry, America, but don’t ever forget: We’re No. 1.
“If a president wants Americans to feel better about him, he has to make them feel better about America first,” said John Baick, professor of history at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass.
Baick said Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat John F. Kennedy are the best modern-day examples of presidents who appealed to America’s strong national identity. Reagan spoke of America as a “city upon a hill,” a phrase borrowed from Puritan leader John Winthrop, one of the first Americans to express the new land’s exceptionalism. Kennedy challenged an anxious, Cold War-bound nation to land a man on the moon, a memory Obama evoked Tuesday night by speaking of “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
Even as Republicans clamor for budget cuts and voters grow weary of the nation’s mounting debt, Obama called for more spending on new technologies, new energies, education, and infrastructure. What he requested isn’t really new—Obama and other Democrats have made similar requests in the past—but the frame was: Rather than a blunt appeal for money, Obama challenged the country “to sacrifice and struggle and meet the demands of a new age.” He dared Americans to turn their backs on the American dream.
“Now it’s our turn,” he said. “We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”
It’s a deft trick to turn American exceptionalism into an exceptional political tactic. This was, in fact, the first speech of Obama’s reelection campaign, and he is not the only 2012 candidate playing on America’s dreams.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty released an online video this week to promote his new book, Courage to Stand. The parade of American exceptionalism clichés starts with an announcer who intones, “The United States of America is the most successful nation the world has ever known.” Accompanying images of George Washington, an astronaut, and covered wagons, Pawlenty says, “Valley Forge wasn’t easy. Going to the moon wasn’t easy. Settling the West wasn’t easy. We are the American people. We have seen difficulties before and we always overcome them.”
And that is how Obama finished his address. “We do big things,” he said. “From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That’s how we win the future.”
And, Obama hopes, that is how we win elections.